Chasing Solar Storms on a Wing and a Game

Chasing Solar Storms on a Wing and a Game


When scientists at the Royal Observatory Greenwich began analyzing data from the STEREO (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) Spacecraft,  they knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task.  The craft, which uses two near-identical satellites to reveal solar storms in 3D, has already transmitted over 100,000 images of solar activity…almost 25 terabytes of data!

It didn’t take the project team long to figure out they were going to need a little manpower if they were going to get through the data overload.  Fortunately for them, had a plan.

Armed with awesome game mechanics and over half a million eager “Citizen Scientists,” Solar Stormwatch was soon ready to tackle the immense task of studying the images and identifying possible solar storms.

But as exciting as the prospect of study massive solar storms can be, the actual analysis is not as easy as it seems.  In order to make the most of their legion of volunteers, the Royal Observatory staff needed to find a way to train non-scientists to translate data quickly.

Enter My Solar Stormwatch.  New Recruits to the Stormwatch team undergo video training, where they earn badges, complete tutorials, and play games designed to teach them in a fun way to understand and interpret the STEREO video data.  As players increase their knowledge, they unlock new games of increasing difficulty.  The site also has a member forum, a Flickr site where members can share photos, and an extensive resource center for teachers.

It’s a no-brainer.  Using game mechanics, stunning graphics, and real science, Solar Stormwatch satisfies both the users and the scientists.  The scientists have an army of willing volunteers, doing the grunt work of reviewing data for free.  And the Citizen Scientists?  Well, Jo Echo Syan, a member since February 2009, said it quite eloquently:

The cool thing is, I am welcome, allowed to ponder, be amazed and explore not only a subject previously inaccessible to me, but it has also enabled me to respond and take a new approach to my work as an artist.

The key to crowdsourcing is to engage the crowd, whether they’re studying solar storms,  matching whalesong, or searching for alien signals with SETI. The field of gamified crowdworking has received numerous academically-funded, major media boosts over the years, through the work of Luis Von Ahn on projects like Google Image Labeler (a great, early gamification example) or the recent triumphs of Foldit. Without the game elements, most (if not all) these projects would likely be impossible – an exciting trend that’s sure to yield even more discoveries in the near future.


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